Frosh seeks hearing on tuition bill facing veto

Governor's office declines, saying `position is clear'

April 21, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. should not veto a bill that would limit university tuition increases to 5 percent yearly until he convenes a public hearing on the issue, a high-ranking Montgomery County state senator said yesterday in making an unusual request to the administration.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Democrat and chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, asked Ehrlich to hold an uncommon executive-branch hearing on a tuition-and-tax bill approved by the General Assembly this month. The topic, Frosh said in a letter released to the news media making the request, "is of the highest importance to students and their families."

Ehrlich has promised to veto the measure because it contains a temporary 10 percent income tax surcharge on corporations to help finance the university system.

`A terrific ... initiative'

"Given his predisposition to veto the bill, if he got a little education on the subject, he might sign it instead," Frosh said in an interview. "It really is a terrific public policy initiative."

The governor's office turned down Frosh's request, a spokesman said yesterday, noting that the House and Senate received testimony on the plan before adjourning last week.

The governor's "position is clear on the bill," spokesman Henry Fawell said. "He is not going to support it. There is no need for another hearing. The governor's mind is made up."

Veto hearings of the type that Frosh is asking for have been uncommon in Annapolis in recent years. Officials said former Gov. William Donald Schaefer held at least one, but Ehrlich did not call for any last year, and former Gov. Parris N. Glendening abstained from the practice.

"It is not unprecedented, but it is extraordinary," said Kenneth H. Masters, a former delegate who is Ehrlich's chief legislative officer. "It truly is a very, very, very unusual practice."

Masters said he has advised the governor against holding hearings on bills slated for rejection.

`An unwise thing'

"Once you start, every legislator who thinks his or her bill is going to require a second look is going to be making requests," Masters said. "As a precedent, it is an unwise thing to indulge in."

Lawmakers approved the tuition bill in response to large rate increases in recent months. Since July 2002, funding for the university system has been reduced by $120 million, and system officials responded by cutting expenses and increasing tuition. Tuition went up about 20 percent on average last fall and is scheduled to go up about 10 percent on average this fall.

Ehrlich "continues to believe that the university system can find increased efficiencies in nonacademic expenditures to keep tuition down," Fawell said.

Growing pressure from university students and parents is being counteracted by lobbying from the business community against the tax increase. Under the bill, the surcharge - raising corporate income tax rates from 7 percent to 7.7 percent for three years while a study commission recommends a permanent funding source - would be phased out after three years.

Business perspective

"The need for the state to swiftly recover from the economic downturn should be the priority," said Ellen Valentino, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business. "With that brings prosperity for all, including the university system."

Frosh countered that the tax increase was an "investment that would pay for itself over and over again." He said he was "disappointed" that the governor would not be conducting a hearing.

Ehrlich is expected to announce his vetoed bills around the time of the last of four scheduled bill-signing ceremonies, on May 26.

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